Russia warns ‘the beginning of the end of Ukraine’ will be imminent if it ‘has to defend citizens’

A senior Kremlin official today warned that if Russia is forced to defend its citizens in the disputed Donbass region it would be ‘the beginning of the end Ukraine.’

Tensions have soared in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks after Vladimir Putin dispatched tanks, helicopters and thousands of troops to the Ukrainian border.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew into Donbass today in a new show of strength as he shook hands with soldiers along the frontier which separates them from Russian-backed rebels.

Putin insists the build up of military hardware close to the border is defensive and that upcoming drills are part of routine ‘combat readiness’ inspections. 

But the deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration, Dmitry Kozak, continued the Kremlin’s tough rhetoric today, as he warned: ‘The start of military action – this would be the beginning of the end of Ukraine.’ 

The notorious Buk missile system was spotted being transported in the Voronzeh region

The notorious Buk missile system was spotted being transported in the Voronzeh region

Other footage showed military trucks being freighted to the region

Other footage showed military trucks being freighted to the region

The notorious Buk missile system, left, was spotted being transported in the Voronzeh region close to the Ukrainian border, as other footage showed military trucks being freighted to the region

Nuclear-capable 2S4 Tyulpan self-propelled mortar system moved in Krasnodar region

Nuclear-capable 2S4 Tyulpan self-propelled mortar system moved in Krasnodar region

Nuclear-capable 2S4 Tyulpan self-propelled mortar system moved in Krasnodar region

Railway workers on the line as tanks and trucks are transported close to Russia's border with Ukraine

Railway workers on the line as tanks and trucks are transported close to Russia's border with Ukraine

Railway workers on the line as tanks and trucks are transported close to Russia’s border with Ukraine

A truck is seen on its way to the Ukrainian border amid a massive build up of hardware from Moscow

A truck is seen on its way to the Ukrainian border amid a massive build up of hardware from Moscow

A truck is seen on its way to the Ukrainian border amid a massive build up of hardware from Moscow

Satellite pictures show a field camp for Russian forces in the same region as the BUK was seen. The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) highlighted the base which has appeared in recent days.

Satellite pictures show a field camp for Russian forces in the same region as the BUK was seen. The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) highlighted the base which has appeared in recent days.

Satellite pictures show a field camp for Russian forces in the same region as the BUK was seen. The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) highlighted the base which has appeared in recent days.

Thousands of Russian troops have been dispatched to the Ukrainian border, some of them are believed to be staying at this field camp

Thousands of Russian troops have been dispatched to the Ukrainian border, some of them are believed to be staying at this field camp

Thousands of Russian troops have been dispatched to the Ukrainian border, some of them are believed to be staying at this field camp

Kozak was asked if Russia would protect its citizens in eastern Ukraine.

Referring in his reply to Srebrenica, where about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces during Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, he said: ‘It all depends on the scale of the fire. If there is, as our president says, Srebrenica, apparently we will have to step in to defend (them).’

Putin has made previous analogies to a ‘second Srebrenica’ if Ukraine does not submit to an amnesty on new border lines which have emerged since the conflict started in 2014. 

Putin today accused Ukraine of ‘provocative actions’ in a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

The president’s words reflect the masses of military hardware which has been seen being ferried for thousands of miles to the border region.

Footage emerged today showing a Buk missile system in the in Voronezh region which borders Ukraine, amid new fears that Moscow could be massing an invasion-capable force.

The weapons system was used in rebel-held Donetsk region in 2014 to down a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 killing 298 people. 

More footage shows the nuclear-capable 2S4 Tyulpan self-propelled mortar system being moved on a military train in Krasnodar region.  

New satellite images have also revealed a field camp for Russian forces in the same region as the BUK was seen.

The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) highlighted the base which has appeared in recent days.

Ruslan Leviev, from CIT, told BBC Ukraine: ‘We notice the movement of all the units.

‘These are both “Pskov paratroopers” and motorised infantry units – they are for example, from the Kemerovo region of Siberia, and from Dagestan.’

Trucks and tanks are transported close to the Ukrainian border amid a massive build up of military hardware

Trucks and tanks are transported close to the Ukrainian border amid a massive build up of military hardware

Trucks and tanks are transported close to the Ukrainian border amid a massive build up of military hardware

A howitzer is seen being transported

A howitzer is seen being transported

A tank is transported to the border

A tank is transported to the border

A Russian howitzer is seen being transported, left, along with a tank

A Ukrainian soldier walks along a trench at the frontline close to the rebel-held city of Donetsk in the pro-Russian Donbass region

A Ukrainian soldier walks along a trench at the frontline close to the rebel-held city of Donetsk in the pro-Russian Donbass region

A Ukrainian soldier walks along a trench at the frontline close to the rebel-held city of Donetsk in the pro-Russian Donbass region

Russian president Vladimir Putin is massing forces at the borders of Ukraine (pictured at the Kremlin during a meeting on March 24)

Russian president Vladimir Putin is massing forces at the borders of Ukraine (pictured at the Kremlin during a meeting on March 24)

Russian president Vladimir Putin is massing forces at the borders of Ukraine (pictured at the Kremlin during a meeting on March 24)

The downing of Malaysian flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur by a BUK missile in July 2014 caused a major international scandal.

Russia denied responsibility but Western investigators found Moscow had provided the BUK system that blew the passenger plane out of the sky.

Merkel earlier today advised Putin to pull his forces back from Ukraine’s eastern border amid escalating violence along the frontier.  

‘The Chancellor demanded that this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation,’ Berlin said in a readout of the call.

Russia has said its forces pose no threat and were defensive, but that they would stay there as long as Moscow saw fit.  

The Kremlin said in its readout of the Merkel phone call that ‘Vladimir Putin noted provocative actions by Kyiv which is is deliberately inflaming the situation along the line of contact.’ 

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew to eastern Donbass in a show of support on Thursday. He is pictured shaking hands with officers after landing by helicopter

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew to eastern Donbass in a show of support on Thursday. He is pictured shaking hands with officers after landing by helicopter

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew to eastern Donbass in a show of support on Thursday. He is pictured shaking hands with officers after landing by helicopter

Pictured: More military hardware reportedly on the way to Ukraine

Pictured: More military hardware reportedly on the way to Ukraine

Pictured: More military hardware reportedly on the way to Ukraine

Pictured: More military hardware reportedly on the way to Ukraine

Various videos and photos have emerged on social media in recent weeks purporting to show a build up of Russian military hardware close to the border with Ukraine

German Chancellor Angela Merkel advised Vladimir Putin to pull his forces away from the border during a phone call on Thursday. Putin insisted his actions were defensive

German Chancellor Angela Merkel advised Vladimir Putin to pull his forces away from the border during a phone call on Thursday. Putin insisted his actions were defensive

German Chancellor Angela Merkel advised Vladimir Putin to pull his forces away from the border during a phone call on Thursday. Putin insisted his actions were defensive

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew to eastern Donbass in a show of support on Thursday two days after he called on NATO to lay out a path for Ukraine to join the military bloc, whose expansion Moscow fiercely opposes. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said those living in eastern Ukraine would not tolerate NATO membership, and that rhetoric could further destabilise the Donbass region.

‘So far we’re not seeing an intention by the Ukrainian side to somehow calm down and move away from belligerent topics,’ he said.

The rouble hit a five-month low on Wednesday after Russia said it had begun a planned inspection of its army’s combat readiness involving thousands of drills. 

The standoff has also pushed Ukrainian sovereign bonds to their lowest level since November.  

Ukraine and Western countries say Donbass separatists have been armed, led, funded and aided by Russians. Moscow has denied interfering.

While a ceasefire halted full-scale warfare in 2015, sporadic fighting never ceased.    

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